We are not necessarily called to an life of increasing comfort and ease. We are not called specifically to get more and more financially secure. We aren’t even directly called to success, or even excellence. What we are definitely called to is the cross. A faith that says: “Yes I believe, but not so much that I would give up my life for him,” is not a faith that truly grasps who Jesus is.
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Matthew #55 . Matthew 16:20-27
I’m afraid that I’m going to have to take this section slowly also. Don’t blame me: blame Jesus, for saying such profound things. Let’s start with this:
And He gave the disciples orders to tell no one that He was the Messiah. (Matt 16:20, HCSB)
It is natural to read this, do a double take and then go “Say What?! Why wouldn’t he want people to know that he is the Messiah?” We have considered this briefly before, when Jesus told various people that he healed to keep silent about who healed them. In fact Jesus gives us a clue by what he says next:
From then on Jesus began to point out to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day. (Matt 16:21, HCSB)
In fact, he says this partly as an explanation for why they should not tell people that he is the Messiah. As far as Jesus was concerned, there were three dangers with the disciples telling people he was the Messiah at this point. The first thing is that if enough people genuinely trusted him as Peter and the others did, no one would ever crucify him – and his crucifixion was a necessary part of his mission on earth. The other possibility is that his support among the people would grow so quickly that the authorities would have him killed before he was done training his apostles. Third, his work as the Messiah would not complete until the resurrection, the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. His disciples simply would not grasp the whole message until all that had happened. They really were not supposed to start evangelizing until Pentecost.
Next comes Peter’s misplaced rebuke:
Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You! ”
But He turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” (Matt 16:22-23, HCSB)
Remember how just a few minutes earlier, Jesus was giving Peter the keys the kingdom? Here we discover that those keys can’t lock something that the Lord has already decided be opened, or unlock what the Lord has decided to close. I think this little exchange is extremely relevant in our world today. The essence of it this: Peter, thinking he has the authority of God to do so, is trying to bypass the cross. He is trying to assert man’s perspective, completely missing, and even possibly trying to reject, God’s view.
This is one of the reasons I find the prosperity gospel, with all its emphasis on success, so offensive. What is even worse is that many churches who do not preach “prosperity” still often (perhaps unwittingly) pick up on the “success mentality.” Bigger is always assumed to be better. More people, more followers, more money is assumed to mean more kingdom impact. For far too many people, externally measurable success must mean God’s approval.
Perhaps they forget that greatest impact ever had on earth for the kingdom of God was made by a single person who died alone, rejected and abandoned. Perhaps they forget that the Holy Spirit spread the gospel in the early days of Christianity by dismantling the Jerusalem mega-church and scattering its members all over the place (really. Read Acts 8). Perhaps they forget that Abraham was a nomad with no permanent home, or that the anointed king, David, wandered for years like a criminal in the wilderness, or that Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Daniel were rejected and persecuted, and very few people listened to them. The writer of Hebrews reminds of others who
experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. (Heb 11:36-38, HCSB)
The world was not worthy of them. Too often, we want to be worthy of the world, instead of realizing that the rejection of the world often is a sign that we are on the right path. Peter wanted to do things the world’s way. “We’ve got the Messiah. Now it’s on to glory! Come on, Jesus, no more of this nonsense about dying and being rejected – you’re the Messiah.” In the language of many Christians today, it might be something like this: “Your words have power. Don’t speak the negative. Speak only the good, and it will come to pass. Stop speaking about death and pain. This will never happen to you. Claim the victory!”
We want to go straight to the glory, and skip the pain. That’s understandable; it’s human nature. Even Jesus himself was tempted in that way. But we forget something that Jesus said right here: that the true path to glory always leads through the cross:
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26, HCSB)
Jesus never promised to enrich us in this life. He never said that everything would work out the way we want it to. He never said “Speak what you want and it will come into being.” He never said, “make it your goal to have a big church.” Instead, what he said was, “You want to follow me? Then deny yourself, your wants, and be ready to die to everything except me. If necessary, be ready to even physically die for me.”
Now, I am not trying to eliminate any hope you have for a better life now. We can find great joy, satisfaction, peace, love, grace and fulfillment in following Jesus, even in this life. But to follow Jesus in the first place, we have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Joy in this life starts when we give up on the world’s way of doing things, and quit wanting what the world says we should want. To put it plainly, to get the joy that Jesus offers, we need to accept the cross.
Let’s look at the apostle Paul for an example. He did not live a life free from all trouble or hardship. He did not accumulate wealth, or have a nice house, or a great means of transportation (or anything equivalent to a nice car). For Jesus’ sake, he was beaten, imprisoned, slandered, and mocked. Even some of the people that he taught did not really respect him. He wasn’t considered an impressive public speaker. He started a number of churches, yet all of them were pretty small while he was in charge. Some of them apparently did not remain very spiritually healthy. A few them apparently didn’t last. He even had chronic health issues that were never cleared up (as far as we know). There is very little about Paul’s life that is attractive to the world. There are even very few Christians (at least in America) who aspire to be like Paul in these ways.
And yet, Paul, through his writing, records what he considers a good life. He was engaged in interesting, challenging and fulfilling work. He got to travel extensively. He found joy in his calling, and even in his daily experiences. From the outside, Paul’s life looks pretty tough. But from the inside, from his own perspective, he lived in joy.
And in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice because I know this will lead to my deliverance through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all boldness, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (Philippian 1:18-21)
Paul wrote this while in prison, while other people were trying to take away his influence in the church! Even in these circumstances, he had joy. I don’t think it was a shallow happiness – it was an abiding sense that the life and power of Jesus in him were greater than the worst that the world could throw at him.
He wrote to the Corinthians:
We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2Cor 4:8-10, HCSB)
He was not “living the dream life” at least, not as the world sees it, but he was living out the call of the cross: carrying the death of Jesus in his body so that the life of Jesus would also be revealed. He found great joy in living this way:
I have great confidence in you; I have great pride in you. I am filled with encouragement; I am overcome with joy in all our afflictions. (2Cor 7:4, HCSB)
The bible is very clear that we can have joy on the inside, regardless of what happens on the outside:
Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (Jas 1:2-4, HCSB)
Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through Him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:1-5, HCSB)
Paul answered Jesus’ call to take up his cross daily and follow. He did find hardship in doing so. But he also found hope, peace and joy, time after time:
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15:13, HCSB)
I wrote this very thing so that when I came I wouldn’t have pain from those who ought to give me joy, because I am confident about all of you that my joy will also be yours. (2Cor 2:3, HCSB)
I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content — whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me. Still, you did well by sharing with me in my hardship. (Phil 4:11-14, HCSB)
We are not necessarily called to an life of increasing comfort and ease. We are not called specifically to get more and more financially secure. We aren’t even directly called to success, or even excellence. What we are definitely called to is the cross. It is true, the Lord promises glory – but that comes later. Jesus’ own life demonstrates that:
Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11, HCSB)
Yes, Jesus is now exalted, and he shall be even more exalted when every single soul confesses the truth of who he is, like Peter did. But before all that, he emptied himself in humility and obedience and suffered humiliation, rejection and death. We can’t skip the cross. The only path to glory is through it.
I want to take more time later and talk about specifically what it means to follow Jesus by taking up your cross. But for now, I think the first thing is to hear the call and respond to it. We need to understand that this foolishness in the eyes of the world. We need to give up our own ambitions and take Jesus on his terms, not our own.
It is a life involving sacrifice – what do “deny yourself” and “lose your own life” mean if not some sort of sacrifice? But Christians like Paul show us that when we take Jesus on his terms, when we give up our own, it is also a life of joy, wonder, fulfillment, peace and grace.
Too many Christians treat this as optional. We think, “I’ll agree that my sins need to be forgiven. I’ll gladly receive that forgiveness through Jesus. But this business about taking up my cross, denying myself, dying to self – that’s kind of extreme. That’s only for hard-core Christians.” And, God help us, too many of us pastors, fearing to lose church members, have let people continue to think this way. We’ve acted as if there is “Hard-core Christianity,” and “Christianity-lite.”
But listen again to Jesus:
Now great crowds were traveling with Him. So He turned and said to them: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, and even his own life — he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:25-27, HCSB)
Clear enough for you? There is no “Christianity-lite.” The call is let Him own your life.
You might say that this is the other side of the coin of belief. If we affirm Peter’s confession, with all that it means, then Jesus has the only claim on our ultimate allegiance. If we really believe Jesus is the Messiah, son of God, then we must believe that he has the right to ask everything of us; that nothing, not even our own desires, not even our own life on earth, should be more important to us than him. This is why there is no “Christianity-lite.” A faith that says: “Yes I believe, but not so much that I would give up my life for him,” is not a faith that truly grasps who Jesus is.
Imagine you are trapped in a burning building. Through the smoke and the flames a Firefighter emerges. He tells you that he has 15 years’ experience fighting fires; not only that, but the building you are in is owned by his Father and he knows it like the back of his hand. He says “Follow me, and I will lead you to safety. I may have to ask you to do some pretty scary things at certain points, and you’re going to have to trust me . But if you do what I say I promise you, you will be saved.”
So you follow the Firefighter as he leads you through smoky corridors and strange doorways. Suddenly you come to a place where the path in front of you is filled with flames and fallen debris. The Firefighter says, “the flames are not thick. Put this blanket over you, hold my hand, and I will take you through safely.” If you truly trust the Firefighter, you will do what he says.
But suppose, at this point, you balk and say, “No. I can’t do that, it’s too scary. I’m sure there must be some other way that you haven’t thought of.” The fact that you will not do what he asks reveals that, actually, you do not really believe that he knows the best way to save you. You can say that you believe he is a Firefighter with a lot of experience. You can say that you believe this is his Father’s building and he knows his way around. But if you won’t listen to him when things get tough, it shows that you only trust him as long as there is no risk involved. In fact, you don’t really believe what he has told you.
If Jesus is who he says he is, then he has the right to tell us to follow him through the cross. If he truly is “Messiah, son of God,” with all that it means (which we have studied these last few weeks) then when he says “take up your cross,” we can trust him. Believing that Jesus is Messiah, son of God means trusting him as calls us to the cross. They are one and the same thing. If he has the authority to call us to deny ourselves and even to die for him, then he must be the Messiah, the son of God. If he does not have the authority to do that, then he is not the Messiah, the son of God. The way we respond to this call of the cross reveals what we truly believe.
John records that many people, when confronted with these things, quit following Jesus:
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69, ESV2011)
Peter’s words here, as before, are words of faith. He truly believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, so what alternative does he have, but to follow him? There is no halfway-Christianity.
Now obviously, we struggle. There are days I whine and complain about having to deny myself. There are days I don’t deny myself. But I don’t think Jesus expects us to follow him perfectly. He knows that our minds and hearts are clouded by our battle with our own flesh, influenced by the sinful world and confused by the devil. What he wants is for us to be on the road of following him and not our own road. I am not just going along with him until his way diverges from what I want. I’m not walking with him only as long as the two of us are going the same direction. However imperfect and weak I am, I am his. I may fall down on the road while following him, I may sometimes have to stop and gather my courage, but I am not on some other road. I think that’s what he’s after.
Next time we will consider more thoroughly what it means to take up our crosses. But we don’t need to know any more than we do at the moment to say “yes” to Jesus.
Why don’t you ask the Holy Spirit right now to give you the strength to do that?
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